Thursday, February 5, 2009

Commentary on the Atlas Scene

After reading the unpublished scene from Atlas Shrugged--in her lecture "The Spirit of Francisco"--Shoshana Milgram provides the following commentary:

What Francisco said is pervasive and significant in Ayn Rand's fiction--although generally without close verbal equivalents: "When we turn a corner, there will always be something exciting and wonderful there--we will be there."

What is Francisco saying here? In miniature, I think it's the Fountainhead. It's the self-sufficient ego--invulnerable, uncrushable. It's the reverence of the noble soul for itself. We will be there. We will be what we have made of ourselves.

And for the evil characters, their hell is what they've done to themselves. Consider: "the burning pressure on his temples and the faint, dizzying, nausea of unreality came from the fact that he could not recapture the sense of being Dr Robert Stadler."

For Dr Stadler, he is no longer there. Not after what he's done. Around every corner he will seek in vain the self he betrayed--and instead of "the fearless mind and the inviolate truth," he'll find something awful: the mind he betrayed.

Similarly, James Taggart, who shaped his evil self long ago and has been running from the awareness of it ever since, is destroyed by the vision--so to speak--of himself.

"The sight he was confronting was within him." For James Taggart, beyond every corner and at the end of every blind alley--once the fog is cleared away--there is and will always be something horrible: he will be there.

...with Wynand, that's the great tragedy. It's that he's not there, he's committed the unforgivable sin: the treason against his own greatness.

But the good news is that the fullfillment of one's own promise, by contrast, is (for example) Rearden's triumph. On the night of Dagny's broadcast, when Rearden tells Dagny everything he's learned and accepted--including her use of the past tense (in talking about their relationship)--Dagny sees his spiritual achievement.

"Looking up at his face, she realized that, for the first time, he was what she always thought him intended to be--a man with an immense capacity for the joy of existence. The taut look of endurance, of fiercely unadmitted pain, was gone. Now, in the midst of the wreckage and of his hardest hour, his face had the serenity of pure strength. It had the look she had seen in the faces of the men in the valley."

...For Ayn Rand's heroes--from Kira, with her enduring smile and her salute to the possibilities of life--to Prometheus, in the act of discovering the self as the greatest treasure--to The Fountainhead itself and the great-souled heroes of Atlas--spiritual splendour is the reward that at every moment, and forever, will always be there. It's what can't be lost.

Whatever the turns of the plot, whatever the setbacks and difficulties, they will be there.


  1. This is terrific, Daniel. One of my favorite quotes since I was a kid is "Wherever you go, there you are." It's simple and sublime. For the noble soul -- the soul of truth, courage and excitement -- each moment, each place is an expression of values achieved and lived. This post is eloquent in its extrapolation of what it means to be either rational or irrational in the moment that you are where you are. Great writing.

  2. Glad you enjoyed it! Just to be clear: this was commentary from Shoshana Milgram in the lecture that ARI's made available for free online. (My contribution was transcribing it.)

    I like that quote by the way. "Wherever you go, there you are." Do you know the author? That's definitely a quote I want to write down and re-visit. I'm imagining it being said by an old, Texas cowboy.

    As an aside, I found it helpful to contrast this view of evil characters and heroic ones (in works like Atlas) with the view that many people experience in modern films.

    In these, especially horror films, it is the evil which has metaphysical supremacy and it is the good characters who can never fully achieve serenity in their thoughts.

    They must constantly fear some unknowable evil, which cannot ever be fully vanquished, and which the good are powerless to fight against.

    In effect, these films provide a completely opposite and warped view of the world and a person's place in it. In their view, based on their conception of evil, it is the good who should fear what is on the other side of any corner.

    The reality of course is the opposite. The thing that will not die and which cannot be escaped is in fact the conscience of an evil person.

    No matter where they go, or how much liquor they imbibe, or what distractions they seek to feel a temporary reprieve, the evil that is them will always pop up--like the hand of some evil character, in some badly-written horror script.

    By contrast, it is the good characters and the heroic ones that do not have to fear the world or themselves. They don't need to fear unknowable evils lurking in the shadows. A world of benevolence and of celebration, of the grand and the exalted, belongs to the these people--in (philosophically correct) art and in reality.